I have absolutely no capacity for objectivity about Bonnie Raitt. But I think her performance last night in Philly was the best of the four I’ve seen. (Pictures are here.) She was energetic and engaging, powerful and emotional. Both the ballads and the rockers were great. And, as always, it was just wonderful being the presence of her because, well, she’s just a mensch.
I saw her for the first time in the fall of 1972 as a college freshman—sitting right in front of her at McConaughy Dining Hall as she sang, played guitar and joked around. I was 16, she was 22. (Maria Muldaur, who had just released Midnight at the Oasis, was the warm-up!). I developed a bit of a crush. And I’ve admired her voice, musical choices, activism, and sense of humor ever sense.
Amazingly enough, I’m 56 and she’s 62 now. And at least she has aged well! Her voice was never that full and she’s lost that the beautiful purity of her high end. But I enjoy her singing more than ever. Her voice is more her own: more breathy on top and reedy in the middle, fuller, and when she wants it to be, a little husky at the bottom. And she’s a far more skilled and affecting singer than she once was. As a young woman she took on the style and manner of her blues heroes, although always with her own twist. Over the years, and as she’s broadened her repertoire beyond blues and blues-folks tunes to an extraordinary range of contemporary standards that draw on a wide range of traditions, she’s pared back those influences a bit and developed an individual approach. And the key to it is that she gives every lyric the attention and individual approach due it.
Her choice of material is always impeccable. Raitt is also one of those singers to whom you go to find good songs that you might not hear otherwise because they aren’t written by famous performers. She interprets them well and, often with arrangements that bring out their best. Her band is absolutely tight.
(If I have one wish, however, it is that she would [ut aside some of the chestnuts she’s been touring with for a decade and explore parts of her book that she’s ignored for some time, including those early blues tunes. Given how her voice has changed, she may be reluctant to go back. But I suspect her devoted audience would not expect to hear what we did forty years ago, but would love to how she would approach them today.)
She played mostly tunes from her new album which is one of her best as well as some of the popular tunes she’s been touring with since Road Tested.
She was performing in the Academic of Music—our 1890s opera house and concert hall—for the first time, although she said she was in in first in it when she saw The Band in 1969. And in recognition of its heritage she gave us a bar or two from Ave Maria as she walked out on stage. (She lived in Philly for a few years at 17th and Lombard.) And she was impressed. I had binoculars and I noticed that in the first tune she looked down. At the start of the second tune she looked up briefly and said “Oh, shit.” A minute or so later she looked up again to the top of the office and said “oh, wow’ with a great big smile. And a few tunes later she walked over to her guitar player during a break and said something like , “Look up, look at this place.”
She talks constantly between tunes and is still funny and charming, just like she was the first time I saw her. She joked about many things, including “putting on lipstick” before one tune-although I gather it was lip balm. When her guitar guy came out to give her a different guitar, she thanked him and said something like: “He’s here so we didn’t have to waste your time tuning between songs…and so that I can bullshit with you.” She’s generous—constantly introducing and featuring her band, dedicating songs to a sick guy in the audience, to AFSC which is based in Philly and with whom she’s worked for years, to Damon Williams, Ruth Brown’s nephew and the Executive Director of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and to a couple who were about to get engaged. She thanked us for coming out to see her over the years, “even when she doesn’t have hit album” although it appears that Slipstream is taking off. And her last words were about the election and a reminder that we need to “keep going forward.” This crowd didn’t need a translation.
Mavis Staples opened and was wonderful, although her voice showed some signs of strain. One sign of Bonnie’s respect for those whose musical traditions she draws on as was that she came out early to join her for Will The Circle Be Unbroken, rather than have Mavis Staples come back during her set.
Staples told a funny story about how she was once jealous of Bonnie because Pops had taken a liking to her. And then she talked about how she got she got even when she met Bonnie’s father, John Raitt. When Bonnie came on she said she’d hadn’t known about that but remembered thinking it strange that, when her father had traveled with her on the previous tour with Mavis, he said something about sometimes wishing he wasn’t married. Bonnie also said that her father would steal every show by singing Oklahoma.
As I said, I have no capacity for objectivity about her. But on the Platonic theory to which I subscribe, love is not blind but rather, that which enables you to see the truth in and of others. So I have no doubt that Bonnie Raitt really is just wonderful.
PS Just found the set list online:
01 Used To Rule The World
02 Right Down The Line
03 Something To Talk About
04 Million Miles
05 You Can’t Fail Me Now
06 Love Sneakin’ Up On You
07 Come To Me
08 Marriage Made In Hollywood
09 Not Cause I Wanted To
10 Angel From Montgomery
11 Thing Called Love
12 I’ve Got News For You (Mike Finnigan lead vocal)
13 I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get The Blues)
14 Down To You
15 I Can’t Make You Love Me
16 Not The Only One
17 Have A Heart